Improving Air Quality to Reduce Illness
Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is consistently listed as one of the top five environmental risks by the Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board and the National Resources Defense Council (EPA, 2000; Mott, 1997). Levels of indoor air pollutants are often up to 100 times higher than those found outside (EPA, 2000). Schools and childcare programs are especially susceptible to poor air quality due to having a greater concentration of people per square foot than other buildings. In addition, the age of buildings can contribute to poor air circulation. For example, studies conducted in American schools reveal that 15,000 schools suffer from IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) problems. This affects one in five schoolchildren (General Accounting Office, 1995; Schneider, 2002). Children who are from racial minority groups and/or from families who are low income are disproportionately affected by poor air quality since they often are in home and school environments with high levels of both indoor and outdoor pollutants. This has led some writers to suggest there is a lack of environmental justice (Schneider, 2002).
Poor air quality can cause and contribute to both long-term and short-term health problems (EPA, 2005) and because children breathe more air per body weight than adults they are often more adversely affected (Kennedy, 2001). Reported symptoms include upper respiratory infections, nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, allergic reactions, irritated eyes, nose, and throat. (EPA, 2005; Schneider, 2002). Poor air quality results in increased absenteeism and poorer student performance (Mendell & Heath, 2005). It can also contribute to asthma, resulting in American children missing 12.8 million days of school a year (ALA, 2007; Schneider, 2002).
How can we improve air quality in early childhood settings? We can reduce contaminants, control humidity, and adequately ventilate the classroom. Contaminants include carbon dioxide from people breathing, building materials containing formaldehydes, bacteria, smoke, car exhaust, dust, dust mites, mold, and household products (such as cleaning supplies, scented shampoo and soaps, perfumes, candles) (Schneider, 2002). Whenever possible these materials should be eliminated. Some programs are now using “green” building materials, cleaning supplies, and grooming products as a way of reducing contaminants. For example, teachers might use vinegar and baking soda for cleaning rather than more toxic cleaning supplies. Other programs are reducing dust and dust mites by eliminating carpets.
Humidity plays an important role in air quality. Ideally, humidity should range between 40% and 70% (Schneider, 2002). High humidity causes mold, contributing to poor indoor air quality and allergic reactions (Schneider, 2002). However, low humidity reduces children’s natural mucus, one of their lines of defense against illness.
It is also critical to assure adequate ventilation. In addition to delivering fresh air, ventilation can dilute or remove contaminants. You can ventilate buildings by either opening windows or through ventilation systems. For example, in a childcare study in Sweden, air-cleaning technology statistically reduced absenteeism caused by illness (Rosen & Richardson, 1999).
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